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Villagers' victory over U.S. energy giant

By Duncan Campbell

LONDON, DEC. 17. A ground-breaking settlement thought to be worth millions of dollars has been reached in the long-running human rights case brought by Myanmar villagers against the energy giant Unocal, it emerged yesterday.

A dozen villagers sued the company in the California courts, claiming that the building of Unocal's pipeline in the country had led to deaths, rape and the disruption of their way of life. The settlement may have major ramifications for other multinationals.

In a joint announcement yesterday, Unocal and the human rights group EarthRights International announced they had reached a settlement in principle in connection with the Yadana gas pipeline project.

Compensation

No mention was made of the sums of money involved but it is certain to run to millions of dollars. Unocal's legal costs alone are estimated to be at least $25 million.

``Although the terms are confidential, the settlement in principle will compensate plaintiffs and provide funds enabling plaintiffs and their representatives to develop programmes to improve living conditions, health care and education and protect the rights of people from the pipeline region,'' the statement said.

``These initiatives will provide substantial assistance to people who may have suffered hardships in the region.

``Unocal reaffirms its principle that the company respects human rights in all of its activities and commits to enhance its educational programmes to further this principle. Plaintiffs and their representatives reaffirm their commitment to protecting human rights.''

EarthRights International declared it was ``thrilled'' and ``ecstatic'' at the settlement.

The action arose after 12 Myanmarese brought the suit in California claiming that their country's military Government had used forced labour and its soldiers had employed murder and rape to clear the way for Unocal's pipeline.

The action was brought against Unocal, which is based at El Segundo in California, on the grounds that it benefited from the Myanmar Government's activity even if it did not endorse it.

The story began in the 90s when the Myanmar regime used indentured labour to clear a path for the Yadana project - a pipeline for Unocal and Total - which was the biggest foreign operation under way in Myanmar.

According to the lawsuit, which was launched in 1996, the army used brutal tactics to coerce the villagers into working on the project.

The plaintiffs, who were known only as John or Jane Doe or Roe to keep their identity from the Myanmar authorities, claimed that the army ``engaged in a pattern of systematic human rights abuses and environmental degradation ... to fulfil its contractual responsibilities to Unocal and Total''.

`Tortures, killings'

The suit claimed that ``abuses such as extrajudicial killings, torture, rape and extortion by pipeline security forces have dramatically increased since the Yadana project was initiated''.

The allegations were taken up by human rights organisations in the U.S., including EarthRights International - which was co-founded by the Myanmar activist Ka Hsaw Wa - the Centre for Constitutional Rights and the International Labour Rights Fund, which brought the case on the villagers' behalf, using the Tort Claims Act of 1789.

Unocal has always denied any wrongdoing or being aware of any atrocities.

It sought at various stages to have the case thrown out, but the suit was finally due to come before the courts next year.

Unocal claimed that the Yadana project has given nearly 50,000 people in the area better health and education and improved the local economy. It was backed by the U.S. Justice Department.

There were U.S. Governmental fears that, if the action succeeded, it could lead to a flood of similar claims by indigenous peoples whose lands had been used for pipelines or oil drilling carried out by multinationals. —

© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2004

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